As a tabletop gamer from the early 1990s, it’s a little weird to me that the hobby is so mainstream these days. Most people know of Dungeons & Dragons or a similar game, and shows like Community celebrate the hobby. It wasn’t too long ago that playing D&D meant you were in league with Satan.
I’m serious – if you played a role-playing game in the 1980s or 1990s, your parents probably worried at some point or another that you were getting involved with Satanism. Just as heavy metal supposedly had satanic lyrics if you played the album backwards, D&D was believed by many to be a tool of the occult.
How did this get started? As with most cases of moral panic, it began with adults scrambling to explain senseless tragedies. In 1979, a high schooler named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared for a month and wound up killing himself a year later. He was an avid D&D player, and the game become a scapegoat.
People claimed that D&D caused Eggbert to behave erratically, although later evidence revealed that he had other psychological troubles. But similar cases popped up here and there. Most notably, in 1982, Irving Pulling killed himself. His mother, Patricia Pulling, immediately blamed D&D and began a one-woman campaign against the game.
Pulling founded a group called Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD) after the wrongful death suit against her son’s high school principal was dismissed. Despite a lack of perspective or facts, she fought against the hobby passionately enough that the media dubbed her an expert on the subject, appearing on shows like 60 Minutes.
Pulling wound up getting a private investigator’s license and became a consultant to local law enforcement. Her “evidence” against gaming as satanic included such treasures as the fact that some games used three six-sided dice to generate ability scores, meaning that 6+6+6 was the best roll you could get.
Pulling published a book, appeared in court as an expert, and spent 15 years campaigning against the hobby. All this despite major factual errors, such as stating that the Necronomicon was a real publication and failing at basic statistics by claiming that 4% of teens plus 4% of adults equaled 8% of the total population.
Ultimately, Pulling proved that you can be completely uneducated and flat-out wrong about something on every level, but people will still listen to you if you say things with conviction. Despite being totally wrong on almost every account, she got enough attention that society really started to believed that RPGs were satanic.
This notion leaked into mainstream culture throughout the 1980s. Notable publisher and repellant human being Jack Chick released the Chick tract Dark Dungeons. The Egbert case got fictionalized as Mazes and Monsters, which then became a movie starring Tom Hanks. This got enough traction that the publishers of D&D even changed the game.
The second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, released in 1989, represented a major tonal change in the game. A lot of “objectionable” content, including demons, devils, half-orcs, and the assassin class, disappeared. Adventures became more focused on heroic fantasy rather tomb-raiding. And all it really did was irritate older fans of the game.
Since the anti-RPG craze hadn’t been based in fact to begin with, making changes to the games didn’t slow these people down. The hobby continued to have a reputation for being dangerous, despite evidence mounting that there was no connection between gaming and poor mental health. Calling demons tanar’ri changed nothing.
So what finally stopped the satanic panic? I’d like to say society got wiser, but that’s not the case. Pulling died in 1997, and her organization died with her. Additionally, games like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto got big, and violent video games became the scapegoat for every mass shooting and teen suicide.
Meanwhile, nerds took the piss out of the old fears by embracing them as part of the culture. As demons and devils snuck their way back into D&D, other gamers embraced the foolishness of the previous generation. Dark Dungeons became a satirical movie in 2014, in an apparent attempt to make Jack Chick truly spin in his grave, is also a role-playing game of its own.
The whole saga of the 1980s and 1990s taught me three things:
1) To become known as an expert on a subject, you don’t have to have any facts on your side. You just have to be very passionate and make sure you speak loudly and with conviction. Eventually, news networks, publishers, and even law enforcement will listen to you.
2) Frightened parents will always find a tangential connection between a new fad and trouble behavior, because the only alternate solution is to accept the true complexity of life’s problems.
3) You can spend almost 20 years calling nerds gullible Satan-worshiping freaks, and they will use your own words to make fun of you later on.